Unlike NK cells of the innate immune system, B cells (B lymphocytes) are a type of white blood cell that gives rise to antibodies, whereas T cells (T lymphocytes) are a type of white blood cell that plays an important role in the immune response. T cells are a key component in the cell-mediated response—the specific immune response that utilizes T cells to neutralize cells that have been infected with viruses and certain bacteria. There are three types of T cells: cytotoxic, helper, and suppressor T cells. Cytotoxic T cells destroy virus-infected cells in the cell-mediated immune response, and helper T cells play a part in activating both the antibody and the cell-mediated immune responses. Suppressor T cells deactivate T cells and B cells when needed, and thus prevent the immune response from becoming too intense.
An antigen is a foreign or “non-self” macromolecule that reacts with cells of the immune system. Not all antigens will provoke a response. For instance, individuals produce innumerable “self” antigens and are constantly exposed to harmless foreign antigens, such as food proteins, pollen, or dust components. The suppression of immune responses to harmless macromolecules is highly regulated and typically prevents processes that could be damaging to the host, known as tolerance.
The innate immune system contains cells that detect potentially harmful antigens, and then inform the adaptive immune response about the presence of these antigens. An antigen-presenting cell (APC) is an immune cell that detects, engulfs, and informs the adaptive immune response about an infection. When a pathogen is detected, these APCs will phagocytose the pathogen and digest it to form many different fragments of the antigen. Antigen fragments will then be transported to the surface of the APC, where they will serve as an indicator to other immune cells. Dendritic cells are immune cells that process antigen material; they are present in the skin (Langerhans cells) and the lining of the nose, lungs, stomach, and intestines. Sometimes a dendritic cell presents on the surface of other cells to induce an immune response, thus functioning as an antigen-presenting cell. Macrophages also function as APCs. Before activation and differentiation, B cells can also function as APCs.
After phagocytosis by APCs, the phagocytic vesicle fuses with an intracellular lysosome forming phagolysosome. Within the phagolysosome, the components are broken down into fragments; the fragments are then loaded onto MHC class I or MHC class II molecules and are transported to the cell surface for antigen presentation, as illustrated in Figure 23.8. Note that T lymphocytes cannot properly respond to the antigen unless it is processed and embedded in an MHC II molecule. APCs express MHC on their surfaces, and when combined with a foreign antigen, these complexes signal a “non-self” invader. Once the fragment of antigen is embedded in the MHC II molecule, the immune cell can respond. Helper T- cells are one of the main lymphocytes that respond to antigen-presenting cells. Recall that all other nucleated cells of the body expressed MHC I molecules, which signal “healthy” or “normal.”
Figure 23.8. An APC, such as a macrophage, engulfs and digests a foreign bacterium. An antigen from the bacterium is presented on the cell surface in conjunction with an MHC II molecule Lymphocytes of the adaptive immune response interact with antigen-embedded MHC II molecules to mature into functional immune cells.
Lymphocytes in human circulating blood are approximately 80 to 90 percent T cells, shown in Figure 23.9, and 10 to 20 percent B cells. Recall that the T cells are involved in the cell-mediated immune response, whereas B cells are part of the humoral immune response.
T cells encompass a heterogeneous population of cells with extremely diverse functions. Some T cells respond to APCs of the innate immune system, and indirectly induce immune responses by releasing cytokines. Other T cells stimulate B cells to prepare their own response. Another population of T cells detects APC signals and directly kills the infected cells. Other T cells are involved in suppressing inappropriate immune reactions to harmless or “self” antigens.
Figure 23.9. This scanning electron micrograph shows a T lymphocyte, which is responsible for the cell-mediated immune response. T cells are able to recognize antigens. (credit: modification of work by NCI; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
T and B cells exhibit a common theme of recognition/binding of specific antigens via a complementary receptor, followed by activation and self-amplification/maturation to specifically bind to the particular antigen of the infecting pathogen. T and B lymphocytes are also similar in that each cell only expresses one type of antigen receptor. Any individual may possess a population of T and B cells that together express a near limitless variety of antigen receptors that are capable of recognizing virtually any infecting pathogen. T and B cells are activated when they recognize small components of antigens, called epitopes, presented by APCs, illustrated in Figure 23.10. Note that recognition occurs at a specific epitope rather than on the entire antigen; for this reason, epitopes are known as “antigenic determinants.” In the absence of information from APCs, T and B cells remain inactive, or naïve, and are unable to prepare an immune response. The requirement for information from the APCs of innate immunity to trigger B cell or T cell activation illustrates the essential nature of the innate immune response to the functioning of the entire immune system.
Figure 23.10. An antigen is a macromolecule that reacts with components of the immune system. A given antigen may contain several motifs that are recognized by immune cells. Each motif is an epitope. In this figure, the entire structure is an antigen, and the orange, salmon and green components projecting from it represent potential epitopes.
Naïve T cells can express one of two different molecules, CD4 or CD8, on their surface, as shown in Figure 23.11, and are accordingly classified as CD4+ or CD8+ cells. These molecules are important because they regulate how a T cell will interact with and respond to an APC. Naïve CD4+ cells bind APCs via their antigen-embedded MHC II molecules and are stimulated to become helper T (TH) lymphocytes, cells that go on to stimulate B cells (or cytotoxic T cells) directly or secrete cytokines to inform more and various target cells about the pathogenic threat. In contrast, CD8+ cells engage antigen-embedded MHC I molecules on APCs and are stimulated to become cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs), which directly kill infected cells by apoptosis and emit cytokines to amplify the immune response. The two populations of T cells have different mechanisms of immune protection, but both bind MHC molecules via their antigen receptors called T cell receptors (TCRs). The CD4 or CD8 surface molecules differentiate whether the TCR will engage an MHC II or an MHC I molecule. Because they assist in binding specificity, the CD4 and CD8 molecules are described as coreceptors.
Figure 23.11. Naïve CD4+ T cells engage MHC II molecules on antigen-presenting cells (APCs) and become activated. Clones of the activated helper T cell, in turn, activate B cells and CD8+ T cells, which become cytotoxic T cells. Cytotoxic T cells kill infected cells.
Consider the innumerable possible antigens that an individual will be exposed to during a lifetime. The mammalian adaptive immune system is adept in responding appropriately to each antigen. Mammals have an enormous diversity of T cell populations, resulting from the diversity of TCRs. Each TCR consists of two polypeptide chains that span the T cell membrane, as illustrated in Figure 23.12; the chains are linked by a disulfide bridge. Each polypeptide chain is comprised of a constant domain and a variable domain: a domain, in this sense, is a specific region of a protein that may be regulatory or structural. The intracellular domain is involved in intracellular signaling. A single T cell will express thousands of identical copies of one specific TCR variant on its cell surface. The specificity of the adaptive immune system occurs because it synthesizes millions of different T cell populations, each expressing a TCR that differs in its variable domain. This TCR diversity is achieved by the mutation and recombination of genes that encode these receptors in stem cell precursors of T cells. The binding between an antigen-displaying MHC molecule and a complementary TCR “match” indicates that the adaptive immune system needs to activate and produce that specific T cell because its structure is appropriate to recognize and destroy the invading pathogen.
Figure 23.12. A T cell receptor spans the membrane and projects variable binding regions into the extracellular space to bind processed antigens via MHC molecules on APCs.